1980s francophone comics are largely reviled by amateurs and critics alike for being an unfortunate example of standardisation and commercialisation. Without any doubt, the production of francophone comic books (or Bandes Dessinées, BD in French) in the 1980s was exponentially greater than what was available just a decade before. BD became a lucrative market and more and more destined for a mainstream public at the expense of more experimental work. Yet, the 1960s/1970s’ radical disregard for the niceties of proper society and the cynicism towards authority of all sorts was not entirely dead in the 1980s.
Since the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the visibility of French-language comic strips increased dramatically and the level of provocation in the material produced started to go well beyond anything imagined previously (http://books.google.fr/books?id=f5KY_CdALWkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=reading+bande+dessinee&hl=en&sa=X&ei=UufZU8H_M8XG0QXH5IH4Bg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=reading%20bande%20dessinee&f=false). The 1970s were not only a period of expansion of BD but also a period of experimentation with a single and simple motto: the pursuit of artistic freedom. It was the age of the concombre masque, the adventure of a philosophical cucumber designed by Mandryka (aka Kalkus) and the beginning of the editions du fromage (until 1982 with the creation of the magazine l’écho des savanes), of Hara-Kiri (auto-proclaimed “stupid and vicious magazine”), furiously anti-everything, largely influence by the American underground comics’ culture (http://books.google.fr/books/about/Rebel_visions.html?id=tn9QAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y) and provoking the censorship in every page with explicitly graphic material (http://www.amazon.com/Comics-French-European-Diversities-Intersections-ebook/dp/B00EVDODPK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407393274&sr=1-1&keywords=9780857459237).
The French-language comic strips status changed at the beginning of the 1980s and became a much more successful commercial industry. In the 1980s, the autonomous and experimental tendency in BD was still there but in a much more confidential way. However, a new sub-genre emerged by the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. It was with the introduction of the genre conventions of crime novels into French comic strips in the late 1970s that social and political themes came to BD.
The prolific Jacques Tardi was among the very first ones to bring polar to BD and vice-versa, by adapting for instance crime novelist Leo Mallet (1909-1996) and his distinctive political tone with his main character, Burma, a reformed left-wing idealist, an anarchist who became a private detective (http://www.amazon.com/s?search-alias=stripbooks&field-isbn=2203334134). Enki Bilal was also an important actor of that political/polar movement as much as he has been instrumental in expanding the potential and prestige of “bande dessinée”. His first “political” work was with Pierre Christin. La croisière des oubliés [The Cruise of Lost Souls] (1975) is a fantastic first volume in a trilogy of sociological fables (légendes d’aujourd’hui, legends of today) about ecological, employment protests and regional issues (with recurrent characters among which an old-timer of the Breton Liberation front – FLB). Le vaisseau de pierre [Ship of Stone](1976) and La ville qui n’existait pas [The Town that didn’t exist] (1977) were respectively the second and third volumes of that trilogy which is available now for English-speaking people (http://www.amazon.com/cruise-lost-souls-Enki-Bilal/dp/1930652380).
Bilal and Christin’s next collaboration was even more politically charged. Christin & Bilal, Les phalanges de l’ordre noir [The black order brigade] (1979) is devoted to a fictional (but almost realist) band of extreme-right activists in their eighties, re-igniting Spanish civil war by committing a cold-blooded massacre of all the residents from a village deep in the Spanish countryside, known for being the centre of an epic battle between Francoist troupes and Republican ones in the latest days of the civil war. This atrocious act is signed by The Black Order Brigade. An English journalist recognizes them as the enemies he fought during the Spanish Civil War, and decides to hook up with his old pals from the International Brigades to track down the assassins. This begins a long and deadly journey across Europe as this odd and unlikely commando follows the bloody trail of the vicious killers across Europe. The Black Order Brigade is now a classic and established BD (http://www.amazon.com/Black-Order-Brigade-Enki-Bilal/dp/0967240182).
The publishing house Futuropolis created in 1972 by Florence Cestac and Etienne Robial, has been influential in the propagation of that white and black polar atmosphere in BD (http://www.dargaud.com/veritable-histoire-de-futuropolis/album-2849/veritable-histoire-de-futuropolis/). Among the many authors published by Futuropolis, Frédéric Lère should be rediscovered. Occupée! [Occupied!], published in 1983 in the book series “Maracas” is about Berlin in the 1980s, a city in-between RDA and RFA, between Real exiteriender Sozialismus and capitalism. Occupied is a splendid description of Berliner’s political activism, about the movement of anti-conformity and squatting in the 1980s.
Within Futuropolis editions, E pericoloso Sporgersi [it is dangerous to lean out of the window of a train] created by Dominique Rousseau in 1988 is also one to be rediscovered. E pericoloso Sporgersi is about the origins and the actors of the bombing of the central station at Bologna (Italy), on the morning of 2 August 1980.
A short review about politicized French-language comic strips published in the 1980s could not be done without the Belgian connection and mainly about Jan Bucquoy. Before being internationally known for his film on the sexual life of the Belgians (la vie sexuelle des Belges, 1994), Bucquoy was a prolific script-writer for comic strips. He worked with Tito (Jaunes, seven volumes published by Glenat editions between 1980 and 1989), with Daniel Hullet (Les Chemins de la gloire, four volumes published between 1985 and 1994) or with Erwin Sells (Frenchy, three volumes with Himalaya editions, started in 1989). The most controversial and politically charged series is undoubtedly the one he made with Jacques Santi, “chroniques de fin de siècle” started in 1985 and published by Ansaldi editions.
With the first volume, Les autonomes [The autonomous], Belgium does not exist anymore. Flanders went fascist and Brussels became an international hub for ultra-neo-liberal politics. Wallonia instead became a paradise for alternative energies and free love governed by the Green party. Gerard Mordant, the main protagonist of this comic strip is a former radical activist working for the Walloon minister of interior who has an affair with the daughter of the French ambassador. France, now run by a right-wing coalition made of Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, alleges that she has been abducted by Walloon extremists and invades Wallonia… Les Autonomes is followed by Mourir a Creys-Malville in 1986 and Chooz published in 1988 by Alpen publishers.
This list of politically engaged French-language comic strips is far from being exhaustive. It is just a first step into the strips of the 1980s. It is just but a sample of BD with that unique flavour of the 1980s to be read again.